Special MPD unit out in cold trying to protect city's homeless

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- With a Wind Chill Warning in place, and bitterly cold temperatures settled in, Milwaukee police on Monday night, January 6th were putting special emphasis on getting those without shelter to safety.

Doctors say those with medical conditions, the elderly, the very young and the homeless are most in danger when temperatures fall to this level -- and some of the homeless have never experienced weather like what we're seeing now.

Wind chill values Monday and Tuesday were expected to be in the -35° to -50° range.

"It's extremely dangerous with the wind chills as they are now," Milwaukee Police Officer Jim Knapinski said.

For the past four years, Officer Knapinski has been part of the Milwaukee Police Homeless Outreach Team.

"It's the coldest day I've had," Knapinski said Monday.

Officer Knapinski drives around parts of downtown, looking for some of the city's most vulnerable to the cold. He checks the usual spots, to protect a population that sometimes fails to protect itself due to things like mental illness.

"Ran into a guy who didn't want to go into a shelter -- says he panics or freaks out when he gets into a room with a large amount of people. Very good chance of hypothermia, frostbite and a very good probability of death," Knapinski said.

Eric Olson with Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare Saint Francis has already seen the signs of frostbite.

The hospital sees its share of the homeless, and says when alcohol is involved, the impact of the cold tends to go unnoticed longer and proves more severe.

Olson says the emergency room is ready for whatever the weather may bring.

"We do have extra staff on hand just to treat any influx that occurs," Olson said.

Officer Knapinski has noticed an increase in the homeless population since he's patrolled the streets -- and helping the growing number get to shelter in these declining temperatures is a difficult task that turns more difficult when day turns to night.

"It's gonna become critical once the sun goes down," Knapinski said.

Hospital staff says smoking can also be a problem -- as it makes people more susceptible to frostbite and its dangers.